Why Won’t the Dalai Lama Pick a Fight?

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader in exile and the man believed by Buddhists to be the 14th incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, does not see himself as a miracle worker. “I’m a skeptic,” he said at his recent sold-out appearance at Boston’s FleetCenter. “If someone truly has healing power, I’d like to call about my knees.”

It was a good quip … and the Dalai Lama has a few. But while he may not possess preternatural powers, there can be no argument that he has considerable international clout–at least potentially. Consider the following.

Before coming to Boston (primarily for a conference at MIT on Buddhism and science) as part of a 20-day, five-city US tour, the Dalai Lama met with President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other US leaders–an audience not always accorded to heads of state. His visit here, as usual, was closely covered by the national press. His various books sell very well: The Art of Happiness, a collection of conversations with author Howard C. Cutler, sold more than 1.2 million copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years. People are prepared to pay considerable money to see him in person: tickets for his talk at the FleetCenter, titled “The Global Community and the Need for Universal Responsibility,” ranged up to $100, with the scalpers outside doing a brisk trade; in New York City, his final stop, tickets for his teaching sessions were priced at $400 each ($1200 and $3000 for VIPs and big donors) and sold out well in advance. And then there’s the fact that His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

As a man of peace, the Dalai Lama speaks often and long about the importance of compassion, about “reducing destructive emotions,” about tolerance, about “internal disarmament,” about restraint, and about the role of intelligence in facilitating these things. But there seems to be a gulf between his expertise in these general precepts and his ability to condense and apply them in certain areas.

In The Art of Peace, a collection of topical papers by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, he says, “Non-violence and peace do not mean that we remain indifferent, passive.” But at the FleetCenter, when asked about the US invasion of Iraq, he said simply: “It is too early to say what will happen. Wait a few years. That is my opinion.” And in a March 11 official statement on the same issue, he said, “All we can do is pray for the gradual end to the tradition of wars,” adding, “I don’t know whether our prayers will be of any practical help.” Some might call this passivity.

By contrast, in statements made just prior to the invasion, he said explicitly that war is an organized and legalized form of violence that creates more problems than it solves. He also said, “I prefer [that] violence or war should not take place.” His Holiness took a similar line in a letter to President Bush in 2001, just after the attacks on the World Trade Center, saying, “Violence will only increase the cycle of violence.” But in the letter he offered no specific admonitions and closed mildly with: “I am sure you will make the right decision.”

It would seem, then, that for all the indisputable good the Dalai Lama does in terms of spiritual guidance, he is reluctant to tread on any political toes. This raises the question: As an influential humanitarian, is it not incumbent upon him at least to ask the tough questions of world leaders and, at most, to bring all conceivable pressure to bear on them as his conscience dictates?

This question is being asked more than one might think. For, while the Dalai Lama is universally loved as a man of peace and wisdom, he has his critics. The younger generation of Tibetans is becoming frustrated with the lack of change in their homeland. And some scholars and political commentators wonder why he doesn’t weigh in on other issues of great political import, such as the current situation in Iraq.

“The world is overflowing with preachers and sages who can radiate their often-sincere spirituality,” says noted progressive media columnist Norman Solomon, co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You. “Yet what we need most is engagement with struggles to halt the actualities of violence and suffering–we need willingness to risk offending the powerful.”

Solomon goes on to say that the war in Iraq and the current aspects of its occupation are not abstractions, but are often treated as such by “those who stick to platitudes and evasions.”

“Direct questions deserve direct answers,” he notes. “Talk–even, and at times especially, spiritual talk–is cheap and easy, especially when the alternative would be forthright condemnation of those who, for instance, ordered 2000-pound bombs and cruise missiles to be fired on heavily populated areas of Iraq last spring.”

Another commentator, Chris Colin, wrote a piece for Salon a few years back, titled “The Bodhisattva of PR,” in which he suggested that the Dalai Lama is “Gandhi meets P.T. Barnum, minus the elephants.” More recently, Patrick French, author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, wrote an article for the New York Times called “Dalai Lama Lite,” in which he said that His Holiness’s US tour “confirmed his status as the world’s No. 1 feel-good guru.”

Renowned leftist historian Howard Zinn, author of the best-selling A People’s History of the United States, is a little more charitable but no less forthright.

“I’ve always admired the Dalai Lama for his advocacy of nonviolence and his support of the rights of Tibet against Chinese domination,” he said recently. “But I must say I was disappointed to read his comment on the war in Iraq [i.e., “Wait a few years”], because this is such an obvious, clear-cut moral issue in which massive violence has been used against Iraqis with many thousands of dead.” Zinn added pointedly: “I wonder if the Dalai Lama knows enough about the history of US foreign policy. If he did, he would understand the real motives of our invasion of Iraq and would not be ambivalent about the present war and occupation.”

Certainly it is not a case of a lack of intelligence on the part of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, as he spoke at his Cambridge press conference on September 12, talking authoritatively about the interconnectedness of cosmology, neurobiology, psychology, and physics, it was clear he is streets ahead of most of us in his intellectual powers.

So, given his intelligence and enormous sense of compassion, why doesn’t the Dalai Lama question the leader of the free world about the downside of globalization? About “Star Wars II” and the Bush administration’s flagrant disregard of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? About the unlawful attack on Iraq? Civilian body counts? Why doesn’t he even pose such questions rhetorically in the media? Could it really be that this esteemed 68-year-old monk is so focused on inner change (and the external environment as it pertains to scientific phenomena) that he hasn’t done his homework on the big political issues? When it comes to geopolitical and global economic matters, is the Dalai Lama living in peaceful ignorance in the suburbs of reality?

Undoubtedly, for many people, even to suggest such a thing is akin to booing Santa Claus. After all, the Dalai Lama is a very likeable human being. He is gentle, caring, witty, and almost cuddly. He is calm and wise. He is venerable. In short, he makes people feel good. The adoration at the FleetCenter was virtually palpable. But as distinguished linguist and radical political commentator Noam Chomsky has often said, to personalize an issue is to lose sight of the facts.

And the fact is, the Dalai Lama won’t pick a fight. The good fight. For some reason, he won’t respectfully ask the president of the United States how he can invade a nation without the official consent of the United Nations. Nor will he publicly speculate about the motivations for this action, which has yielded neither stashed weapons of mass destruction nor links to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Furthermore, whenever he broaches the topic at all, it is within the framework of the “US response.” The notion of US culpability has never been an issue that the Dalai Lama has seen fit to touch on directly–whether the topic is Iraq, Grenada, Nicaragua, East Timor, or Third World sweatshops. In the idiom of our time, he would seem to be guilty of not “thinking outside the box.”

And, as Norman Solomon suggests, not speaking out in fact amounts to taking a political position. He adds: “Let the great spiritual teachers basking in acclaim today learn how to emulate Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1967 explicitly condemned ‘racism,’ ‘militarism,’ and ‘economic exploitation’ while also having the moral fortitude to denounce the Vietnam War.”

The Dalai Lama had time to answer only six questions from the sizable audience at his Cambridge press conference, though many more people had questions to ask. And the official line was that he would give no private interviews during his tour–though, it turned out, this was not strictly the case. Repeated attempts to get a response to this article from His Holiness through his New York media representative were met with a “too busy” response. Yet the New York Times reported that the Tibetan leader somehow found time for a photo op with pop star Ricky Martin. Makes you wonder.

ADRIAN ZUPP is a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix. He can be reached at adrianz59@yahoo.com.